What’s Making Me Happy: March 2016

March is my birth month, which means it’s time for new books and/or the means with which to acquire them (gift cards from Barnes and Noble and Amazon.com, for example) to come into the house. I have more books on my shelves than I could read in my lifetime, and that isn’t even counting the ones I’ve already read but have enjoyed enough to keep on my shelves with the idea of revisiting them at some point. Yet I relish few things as much as acquiring new books. Judge me as you please, but I’d have it no other way. The ache of frustration I sometimes feel when I’m trying to choose a new book to read from among the hundreds is a blissful ache indeed. So first on my list of things making me happy this March (and every March, really) is my own vast but ever-expanding library.

More specific items:

The Girl With All the Gifts

I write quite a bit, here and elsewhere, about authors who do a fine job of creating active, interesting, and competent heroines. I say more when male authors do it because it takes me by pleasant surprise — although it really shouldn’t, since a hallmark of good writing is the ability to create compelling characters, and gifted writers, like good characters, come in all genders. Does creating female characters require some extra dash of skill and insight? How messed up are we if the answer is “yes”? Plenty of authors, both male and female, seem to have a hard time writing women. Sometimes they omit them from their stories or give them very minimal background roles. Other times they construct their roles and personalities from a box of stereotypical tropes. On occasion the resulting characters come across less as believable individuals than as wish-fulfillment fantasies, as in “I want to be her” or “I want to be with her.” Men have been the “default gender” for so many literary centuries that our thinking still suffers from it. We may be getting better, but our perception of the kinds of stories that can be told with and about female protagonists is still regrettably limited. There is still a small set number of things a female lead can do, whereas a male lead might do anything.

That’s why an author like M.R. Carey is a treasure. I knew he was one of the good guys since I’d read and enjoyed The City of Silk and Steel, a.k.a. The Steel Seraglio, which he co-wrote with his wife and daughter and which features one of the widest-ranging casts of female characters it has ever been my pleasure to read about. But then, that novel, alternate-history with a few fantastic elements, I might have picked up as a matter of course. The Girl With All the Gifts is a horror/thriller  set in a post-desolation England overrun with parasite-ridden cannibalistic “hungries,” not the kind of thing I’d normally choose if I hadn’t heard it praised by certain trusted sources.

Yet here Carey confirms my impression of him as outstanding with character, and three out of the five major characters in this novel happen to be female. Caroline Caldwell, the cold-hearted scientist out to discover the cure for the “hungry” affliction at any cost, could easily have been written as a man, but in this case the character whose gender isn’t dictated by the plot defaults to female. With Helen Justineau, the teacher, a gender-flip is less imaginable, yet she is a most intriguing woman, a part of a system she abhors, compromised by her own compassionate heart. The fulcrum around which the plot revolves is little Melanie. Sadly I can’t say too much about Melanie without veering into Spoiler territory, but she is adorably and painfully real, a genius but still very much a little girl. Despite her dire situation and the novel’s overall dark tone, she’s funny in surprising ways. The story she composes (ignoring the prescribed vocabulary list), in which a little girl saves a “beautiful, amazing woman” (an expy of her teacher Miss Justineau, whom she hero-worships) from being eaten by a monster, is an early highlight, and many readers might lose their hearts to Melanie at that very point.

I’m a little more than halfway through the book, and I can’t say how the story will finally play out. But my rooting interest in Melanie and her bond with Miss Justineau keeps me reading. This horror/thriller manages to be both frightening and heartwarming.

Supergirl.

No TV show should ever be judged by its pilot. If the pilot has noticeable, even glaring flaws, that just means the show has plenty of room to grow.

I can’t defend the pilot of Supergirl. It’s incredibly cheesy, and its characters, including the clumsy and desperate-to-please Kara Danvers and her cutting, tyrannical boss Cat Grant, seem to belong more to a mediocre big-screen romantic comedy than to an action-adventure TV show. Yet I was so hungry for a show with a super heroine as its lead character that my husband and I decided to keep watching in the hope that it would improve. And lo, it has! So much that it’s barely recognizable as the same show. Each episode has added new layers to its characters.

Kara may seem rather aggressively average in her civilian guise, but we the audience have been allowed to see and understand how she came to be that way, and Melissa Benoist brings such earnest charisma to the role that she reminds me at times of a female Carrot from Pratchett’s Discworld “Night’s Watch” novels. Cat Grant, too, has evolved far beyond the initial stereotype. She’s still the master of cutting quips, many of which are very funny indeed, but she does have an underlying core of integrity; so far in one season she’s shown more character than Calista Flockhart’s most famous role, Ally McBeal, ever displayed. Another big mark in the show’s favor is the bond between Kara and her foster sister Alex; I can’t help wishing more of the “normal” women in superheroes’ orbits were more like Alex, who shows on a regular basis that she doesn’t need supernatural powers to kick major butt. J’onn J’onz, the Martian Manhunter, my favorite character from the animated Justice League, plays a crucial and intriguing role here as well.

This show needs a Season 2, CBS. If this one dies while all the male superhero-led shows  go merrily on, I will be very peeved indeed.

 

 

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TV Adaptations I’d Love to See

Recently we’ve seen a rise in television adaptations of speculative fiction, sparked by HBO’s popular Game of Thrones and continuing with such shows as Penny Dreadful, The Expanse, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, The Magicians, and The Shannara Chronicles, not to mention shows based on graphic novels and superhero lore like The Walking Dead, iZombie, Gotham, Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, and my own unquestioned favorite, Supergirl. All this has me convinced that many of the novels I’d love to see adapted to a visual medium would fare far better on television, where the limited-series format would give them room to breathe, than on the Big Screen. Here, just for fun, are a few titles I daydream of seeing Coming Soon to HBO, Showtime, Amazon, or Netflix:

The Witches of Eileanan. Kate Forsyth’s epic fantasy series has magic in abundance, evil plotting sea-creatures, mystical elvish beings, tree shifters, powerful animals, and landscapes ranging from jagged mountains to dangerously misty swamps to lush forests. With the right budget, it would be a visual feast. Then of course we have a plentiful cast of characters, all with their own intriguing struggles; anyone who has succeeded in keeping the dramatis personae of Game of Thrones straight should have no trouble here. My dream cast: Eleanor Tomlinson, on whom I girl-crushed as I watched the new BBC adaptation of Poldark last year, has the beauty and intelligence and spirit to carry off the dual role of twins Isabeau and Iseult, the saga’s prime heroic movers; Morena Baccarin could play the villainous Maya the Unknown with soft-spoken, seductive venom; and Dame Judi Dench, who has yet to win the awards she so richly deserves, would be sublime as Meghan of the Beasts.

The Stormlight Archive. Sooner or later Brandon Sanderson’s work has to reach the Small Screen, and this work could more than match Game of Thrones in terms of epic grandeur. Those enjoying the current spate of superhero shows would find in this story plenty of heroics to relish, and filmed properly, a raging highstorm or an attack of a monstrous, bloodthirsty chasmfiend could leave a TV audience breathless. My dream cast: Another Poldark star, Aidan Turner, could bring the haunted Kaladin Stormblessed to smoldering, charismatic life. (Twenty years ago, Colin Firth would have been ideal for this role.) Rose Leslie, lately of Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones, is the very image of Shallan. And I would kill to see Timothy Dalton, in all his grizzled handsomeness, embody the aging but still powerful Brightlord Dalinar Kholin.

The Shadow Campaigns. Battle scenes offer abundant opportunities for dazzling visual storytelling, and this series has military action aplenty, not to mention the combat that takes place on the mean streets of Vordan’s capitol city. With good location scouting, the world of Vordan in the late eighteenth century, with its palaces and political halls, ballrooms and barrooms, could be brought to vivid life. My dream cast: frankly, I’d rather see Henry Cavill as the imperfect but solidly decent Marcus D’Ivoire than as gloomy-gus Superman, and while Saoirse Ronan may not match the physical description author Django Wexler gives Winter Ihernglass, her performances in Hanna and Brooklyn convince me she has more than the necessary intensity and intelligence to pull off the journey this complex heroine makes.

The Sevenwaters Trilogy. Juliet Marillier’s lushly romantic historical fantasy series would give some wise director and visual designer a chance to put the world of ancient Celtic folklore on screen. My dream cast: if Saoirse Ronan isn’t too busy playing Winter Ihernglass, she would absolutely kill it as Sorcha in Season 1, “Daughter of the Forest”; since the character spends a substantial portion of the book not speaking, but it’s imperative that we get some sort of feel for what she’s thinking, her expressive eyes would serve an eloquent purpose here. Jessica Brown Findlay, the big-hearted, rebellious Lady Sybil of Downton Abbey, would more than adequately fill the role of Sorcha’s outspoken daughter, Liadan, in Season 2, “Son of the Shadows.”

Forthcoming: Movie Adaptations I’d Love to See.

 

The Nightmare Lullaby 5: Meet Feuval

As much as I love being a writer of fantasy fiction, it does come with its own peculiar challenges. One of those is trying to come up with a non-silly sounding answer when a friendly acquaintance who doesn’t read fantasy asks, “What is your book about?” If a fellow fan asked this question, my reply could last all day, yet with non-fantasy lovers I find myself tongue-tied, helpless to explain the convolutions of my daydreams. To solve this problem, I’ve been told to come up with nutshell descriptions of the “X meets Y” variety. Whereas Atterwald is “‘Beauty and the Beast’ meets The Secret Garden, with shapeshifters,” The Nightmare Lullaby is “The Iron Giant meets The Phantom of the Opera.” Whatever conclusions you’re drawing about that mash-up are probably, well, partially right.

Feuval is the Phantom in my story, the masked man hidden away from the world, who lives in and through his music. He’s the only major character of whom I have no drawing, and the only one whose point of view we never see. Yet he was the story’s starting point. Several years ago, on a visit to the Georgia Renaissance Festival, my husband and I were intrigued by a big black wagon that housed a carillon and a man in a gold mask who played the bells inside. “There’s a story in him,” I thought at once, and all the other ideas for what would become The Nightmare Lullaby branched out from this root.

This is the first scene in which he appears, an early turning point for the heroine, Meliroc.

***

Of all musical instruments, only the carillon conceals its player, making it easy to imagine that it plays itself. Now I sensed a magical mind within it. Hadn’t I learned to shun magic, to loathe its practitioners? Why did I relish this spell when I should have been fighting it?

The trees, bushes, and rocks I passed on my uphill march flickered in the corners of my eyes like smoke-trails from a fire. Only the music was tangible. The figure of the carillon blazed silver in the distance. Fingers of light stretched out to draw me toward it. Once I reached it I caught my wheezing breath and dropped to my knees before it. Its gleam subsided into a quiet shimmer.

“What’s-this-what’s-this-what’s-this?”

The sharp whistling voice jolted me. A creature half the size of Master Pierpon hovered in the air beside my ear, jerking its head at me. Long gray hair spilled down its back and sides, nearly covering the dusty gray rags that draped it. The oval thing atop the rags could not really be called a face, for it boasted only a wide, lipless mouth and a pushed-in nose. Where were its eyes?

“What’s-this-what’s-this?” it squeaked, pinching my chin.

Distaste squirmed in my stomach. Pierpon might have gotten around my prejudice, but he hadn’t overthrown it.

“Tell us who you-are-you-are-you-are!”

I thought my name, hopeful that it might hear me.

The tiny creature gave an irritated trill. “Are you simple-simple-simple?” it jabbered, shaking its fist at my nose. “Say who you are! What you are!”

“Whishk?”

The black curtain in the window fell aside, revealing a hawk-shaped golden mask. Its glint shot ahead of the opening to strike me full in the face. Through the blare I traced the outlines of a man’s figure shrouded head to foot in white.

“What causeth this agitation, my whishk?” A resonant baritone voice folded about me like a downy quilt.

“That!” Again the gray will-o’-the-wisp shook its fist at me. “Make it go away! It’s too big-big-big!”

“Be not uncivil, good whishk.” A touch of admonishing hardness crept into the voice, yet still it rang rich and wonderful. “Draw thou nearer, stranger.” The man’s white-gloved arm slipped through the window to beckon to me.

“Send it away!” The imp bobbed up and down in mid-air, puffing in indignation. “It’s no good. It can’t even speak!”

The mask tilted rightwards. “Is this true, maiden pale?”

I placed a hand to my lips, then sadly nodded.

“And doth that justify thy rudeness, whishk? Be still, if thou canst not call on thy good manners.” The mask’s glint softened upon me. I felt a smile in it. “Wilt thou stand? I would see thy full measure.”

I climbed to my feet. My shadow stretched out to the carillon-wagon, swallowing the masked man.

“Ah!” The voice sounded more pleased than disturbed. “A tree thou art, made all of alabaster moonbeams. Didst my song reach thy ears, moon-tree?”

I nodded yes, kneeling once again. I didn’t want to loom over this man. “Moon-tree” – a beautiful name! How he spoke it! I grinned, a delighted tremble in my toes.

“Too big-big!” fumed the dusty imp. “Send it away-away!”

“Heed not the words of my whishk, fair moon-tree,” the man said. “I am Feuval. Dwell I in this box, with my musical bells.” He stretched out his hand, then rested his fingertips against my cheek. “My music have I given to many villages, yet no listener hath ever spoken back to me.” A note of sorrow rang in the marvelous voice.

I glared down at my quivering hands. Shrink from this man. Distrust him. I tried to picture myself bolting back down the hillside to the safety of my tent, but the image slid through my fingers.

“At each place I do visit, I send forth a summoning, a song that can only be heard by a friend. For so long none hath heeded it. Yet tonight it hath brought thee.” He drew his hand away and rested it on the window-ledge. “I wish that I might learn thy name!”

A cool gust bore down on my heart-fire. This man obviously had magic. A sorcerer would hear my mind-voice. “Meliroc,” I thought at him.

“Why knit’st thy brows so?” he asked. “Fear thou me?”

I summoned every shred of energy to force my mind-voice past that gleaming mask. “Meliroc! Meliroc!

“Thou’rt distressing thyself.” The wonderful voice rang gentle. “Be at peace. I ken thy heart. I called it hither.” He tilted his head toward me. “Dost thou play a musical instrument?”

I shook my head.

“But thou hast wished thou might?”

I nodded yes.

“Then my apprentice shalt thou be,” Feuval pronounced. “I shall teach thee to give life to the stirring inside thee which led thee here.”

How? my mind screamed.

“‘Tis a pity thou art mute,” he said, fumbling for something under the window, “but I shall give – thee – aha!” He drew himself upright again, a strange object in his hands, eight wooden planks fixed to a thick black board. “This shall be thy voice.”

He raised a mallet and struck the left-most plank, and out came a chime, a star’s gleam. The mallet danced lightly down the other planks, raising a succession of notes that shone in a constellation. This was an instrument! The planks were rooted on bells, a miniature carillon.

Gripping it by its sides, he reached through the window and held it out to me. “Take it.”
I wanted to wrest the instrument from his hands and see what constellations I could shape, but memories held me still. So many broken instruments and the Bitter Chord’s mocking laughter. You were not formed to make music.

“Take it,” the masked man repeated more firmly.

My stomach swirling, I claimed the instrument, then the mallet. My fingers folded around the polished wood.

“Now, play the scale.”

Don’t break, don’t break, don’t break… I lifted the feather-weight mallet and dropped it cautiously on the top plank. A bright twinkle answered, my own star.

The instrument held solid. In its ring I heard it accept me. A tremor surging through me, I sent my mallet skipping down the planks as I’d seen him do. Each note rang sweeter than the last. The light-strings from the great carillon wound more tightly about me, and I imagined them as the threads of a chrysalis, promising to transform me into – what? Surely something better than I was.

“Take it with thee,” he instructed, “and draw from it a song of thine own making. A melody of a merry heart. On the morrow’s eve I will summon thee and hear what mettle is in thee.” He snapped his fingers, then jerked his thumb to his left. “Go thy way, moon-tree. Begin thy work.”

 

 

The Nightmare Lullaby 4: Meet Meliroc

Meliroc for Kelley AWA 09_small

It’s all about her.

At one point, very early in my conception, the plucky innocent Valeraine was to be the heroine of The Nightmare Lullaby. The story would have been about the young girl befriending the misunderstood monster and working to free said monster from the curse under which she suffers. But I abandoned this tack pretty quickly. Valeraine certainly has heroine potential, and one day I may write a story that is well and truly hers. But this one belongs to the monster. I’ve noted a fair number of fantasy novels that have monstrous protagonists, but not many of those protagonists have been female. Meliroc grew strong in my mind as someone I hadn’t seen before, and wanted to see.

Because I found Meliroc so fascinating to visualize, I’ve commissioned more than one portrait of her. In the one above, she looks wild and fierce, “frightening” as some of my Facebook friends have said. This may be my very favorite of all the drawings Kaysha Siemens has done for me, because of how perfectly she captures that feral intelligence in the character’s eyes. In the one below, Meliroc is dressed in the style in which we see her for most of the novel. Here she wears a melancholy expression, reflecting a different side of her personality.

Meliroc progress 1-23-12

She really came to life when I decided her perspective should be told first-person. In this quiet sequence from the second chapter, she and her best friend, the tiny Pierpon, talk about the things they love most. (Note: being afraid of the sound of her own voice, for reasons that become clear in the narrative, Meliroc speaks telepathically. That’s why her lines are italicized.)

“What does it mean to be good?

I’d read of goodness in books, and often I imagined it in the faces and manners of people in the towns I passed through. Apparently no one could be truly good in isolation. Good people smiled at each other, aided each other, depended on each other. Good people loved and were loved.

I’d found the pixy-man almost frozen in the snow-drift. I didn’t like pixies. Why hadn’t I left him and walked on? The music — that was it. The music had found some secret thing in my heart and drawn it out of hiding. When I remembered Jickety Pierpon coming to his senses in my hand a thought blossomed in my mind for the first time.

I might be good.

 

………

With my tent secure and my bundles unpacked, I stretched my gray wool blanket over the snow and sank down to read. I reached for the thickest of the three books I carried with me, the strange-beings compendium, and tried to consider how Pierpon’s kind had been left out of it. Instead, I caught myself wondering exactly what end I would meet if Cedelair turned me away. My gaze kept gliding up to that lighted window.

‘You’d love to hear what they’re saying now, wouldn’t you?’ chuckled Pierpon with a jerk of his head toward the tantalizing casement. ‘I can listen for you, I can.’

‘Please don’t. Just talk to me and keep my mind from it.’

Hopping onto my blanket, he tilted his head up at me with an interested spark in his eye. ‘All right, then. What shall we talk about?’

‘What’s the thing you love most in all the world?’

‘Tears. Human tears. Now, now, don’t look like that,’ he chortled when I gaped in horror. ‘Tears have value, they do. When a man wakes from a nightmare and weeps into his pillow he’s learned something, and he’ll put his wrongs to right. Humankind would be lost without us, mam’selle Meliroc.’

I tried to weigh this explanation, but it ran up against the wall in my mind that sealed off things I could never remember — people’s names, places’ names, my ‘childhood.’ I winced at a knocking in my head. ‘I never remember my dreams,’ I told Pierpon.

He knitted his wiry eyebrows. “Oh?”

‘But they must be horrible, because when I wake I find my face soaked with tears and my muscles sore as if I’d been shaking all night. I must have done something abominable once, and when I dream it comes back to me, but when I wake it’s always gone again. How can I learn from that?’

A tiny hand touched mine. ‘That’s not how we jicketies work. And I can’t imagine, I can’t, you being guilty of a terrible crime.’

‘You scarcely know me.’

‘I know you saved me. I know you have kind, warm hands.’

I stared at those work-weathered hands, with their tremble that had become second nature to me. ‘They shiver.’

‘That’s because you feel so much, even more than you realize.’ He let out a whispery whistle. ‘So what’s the thing you love most in all the world?’

The memory of the carillon’s songs ran through me, quickening my blood-flow as only my favorite thing could. ‘Music!’

Pierpon clutched his sides with a laughing grin. ‘You’re serious, you are?’

My small friend’s indifference to music was a grave flaw. I resolved to take him in hand and teach him better. ‘How much do you know about music, Master Pierpon?’

‘Valeraine the Vixen has a little wooden pipe. When she blows into it, it makes a noise she calls music.’

A penny-flute, one of the many instruments I’d tried to teach myself to play. All had shattered to splinters under my fingers. ‘Had you never heard music before you came here?’

His black curls quivered as he shook his head. ‘We don’t bother with it back home, we don’t,’ he declared, almost a boast.

Was there a time when I hadn’t known what music was? As my mind fled that dark and dead-silent past, my heart-fire trembled under a press of sympathy for Pierpon. ‘When you hear Mistress Valeraine play, how does it make you feel?’

‘Tired.’

How much work I had ahead of me!”

 

The Nightmare Lullaby 3: Meet Cedelair

When the idea for what would eventually evolve into The Nightmare Lullaby first sparked in my mind, Cedelair was just what he appeared to be: an aging sorcerer, mentor to a young apprentice, a type we’ve seen in innumerable fantasy tales. Yet somewhere along the way — I’m not entirely sure how or why — he started in a different direction. He developed from the crusty mentor into the male lead, a young man cursed to appear old, a man with his own burdens to bear and journey to make. I even, just for fun, composed a “back-of-the-book” blurb from his point of view:

“Cedelair was only twenty-two when a blow in a magical duel cursed him with the appearance of old age. In the five years since, he has lived a hermit’s life, interacting only with his teenage apprentice, Valeraine, and her nightmare-imp companion, Pierpon. All Cedelair really wants is to be left alone to mix and brew his potions in peace. But when an eight-foot-tall woman with bone-white skin and hair and furious green eyes appears in his front yard and announces, ‘I have come to labor for you,’ what’s a sorcerer to do?”

Cedelair should look like an older, more disgruntled version of Hugo Weaving’s Elrond from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film trilogy. I love the way Kaysha Siemens absolutely nails the “disgruntled” part.

Cedelair progress 1-23-12

In this sequence, the first from Cedelair’s own point of view, we learn that he has a habit of not sleeping, and that he can be as surly as any of us when a song gets in his head.

“Cedelair shook his head with a sigh as he picked up the book lying open, face-down on Valeraine’s chair. He had lost count of the number of times he had told his apprentice not to leave books this way, but she never could remember.
He glanced at the title on the spine and frowned. The Magical Art of the Geas. He’d noticed her poring over this volume, her frown deepening steadily until at last she had pleaded a sick-headache and slumped off to her room. He’d warned her. Magicians’ books offered minute instructions on how to lay a geas in place but never bothered to mention how to get rid of one.
After he slid the book back into its place on the shelf, he took down one for himself, Sacrifice Magic among Belfaire’s Hill Folk, bound appropriately in blood-colored leather. He settled down on his stool, letting his back and shoulders slack. With half-closed eyes he wondered how it might feel to drift off into sleep.
In five years he had not slept. A satisfying wall of wakefulness stood between him and visions which would carry him back to that moment of horror and pain, of wrinkles chiseling into his skin and the brittle smirk on his enemy’s face. Sometimes he girded that wall with the most gruesome tales he could find. The spine-chilling blood sacrifice customs of Belfair’s hill folk were especially useful. But this night something new kept mixing in with the grim words – chimes that gleamed like sun on a clear stream, playing a cheerful tune.
Valeraine had told him of the efforts she’d made to befriend Meliroc, most notably the songs she’d played on their walk home which had moved the giant to share a melody of her own invention. They’d felt like friends in that moment, a current of song flowing one to the other. ‘We ought to be friends,’ she’d concluded, ‘and I’m sure we would be if her former masters didn’t stand in the way.’
Cedelair had met this plaint with a disinterested grunt. He had to keep a careful eye on the outsized ogre, but he would think no more of her than he could help.

Yet there it was again, weaving its way through a blood-dripping paragraph – that funny little tune, drawing a smile to his lips. Something of himself seemed to move in that song. Yet it had come from her. He slammed the book shut and set it down at the foot of his stool. He sprang to his feet and started for the door.
Drawing his long gray coat about his shoulders, he strode over the front step and into the light-pool. He caught sight of Meliroc treading across the lawn, her bell-machine and mallet tucked under one arm and the writing-book Valeraine had given her clutched in her opposite hand. She strode with a purpose, headed somewhere.

Answering a call.
‘Best go after her, he whispered. Following the tracks she had made, he marched beyond the reach of the moonlight spell. As he stepped into darkness he mouthed two words of the Second Tongue, the Tongue of Light. A pale blue flame sprang up from his palm to light his way.
Something in this sojourn might shed some light on how he and Valeraine might rid themselves of the intruder.”